Inside the Thai Cave Rescue with Ben Reymenants and Claus Rasmussen
Between 23 June and 10 July 2018, people across the world held their breath as they watched a seemingly impossible situation unfold: the rescue of 12 young boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in the remote mountains of Northern Thailand. The football team, also known as the Wild Boars, first got trapped inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the Chiang Rai Province after heavy monsoon rains. With various environmental challenges and a ticking clock, the Tham Luang Cave Rescue soon became one of the most publicized rescues in recent years.
The boys and their coach were stranded on an elevated rock approximately 4km/2.5mi from the entrance. Getting to them meant facing limited visibility, strong currents, jagged rocks, narrow passageways, falling oxygen levels, and rising water levels with another storm approaching. These dangers became even more real when former Navy SEAL diver Saman Gunan lost his life while delivering oxygen tanks to the boys.
An extensive international rescue effort
Rescuers from around the world got involved and the Thai cave rescue ultimately comprised of over 10 000 people. This included more than 100 divers, 2 000 soldiers, 900 police officers, and representatives from about 100 governmental agencies. There were also ten helicopters, seven ambulances, and over 700 diving cylinders used. Among this colossal team were Blue Label Diving’s Ben Reymenants and Claus Rasmussen. Here is their take on what it was like to contribute to this extraordinary rescue:
How did you first get involved in the Tham Luang Cave Rescue?
Ben: I was in the Red Cross, so I’ve seen big rescue and catastrophe management operations. I know that once the government is involved, they usually close off the area. The navy was there along with British cave divers, so I figured they were in control of the situation. However, after a while, I realized they still haven’t been found. The communication between the cave divers and Navy SEALs had stalled. That’s the moment I received a phone call asking if I could fly over to support the Thai Navy SEALs.
Claus: I was teaching a cave course in the southern part of Thailand when the kids went missing. Having been put on standby to fly up there on the 27th, the situation at the cave changed with the arrival of the English divers and the increase of water flow which forced the army out of chamber 3. In the end, I arrived there on July 2nd, just hours before the kids were found.
Describe what the conditions were like inside the cave? Did you think it was possible to rescue the boys?
Ben: By the time I landed, I had already visualized a dozen different cave scenarios. We had no info, only a 30-year old map which basically showed a curly hairline with one T-section. When I walked in and saw the conditions on the first day, the first thought in my head was “this is not going to happen.”
Claus: With the kids being in good health, a big part of our focus was on how we could get them out without endangering all the people in the cave beyond reason. This was also the main reason why so many other options (like drilling to them) were evaluated.
What was your reaction when you discovered that the boys were all alive?
Ben: As a rescuer, you force yourself to picture them alive, but you’re aware of all the what-ifs: if they found dry high ground on time, if they drank the river water, if they were injured or panicked. With so many variables that could have jeopardized their survival chances, I was in disbelief. Then I saw the video sent to us by the commander and saw that there were 13, it was unbelievable.
Claus: I was absolutely amazed and ecstatic. It was the best possible news. I was telling my wife that I would be back home in just a few days.
Possible ways to get the boys out included teaching them to dive, drilling alternative entryways into the cave, and pumping water from the cave while waiting for water levels to recede. Why weren’t these viable options?
Ben: They tried drilling, but the area was very deep and I understood they hit hard rock at some stage. The water pumping did actually work well once they installed giant pumps. As for diving, the condition of the boys, distance to travel, narrow passages, and zero visibility were all risk factors. Any person would freak out being submerged in mud, wedged into a 48cm rock passage.
How was this rescue different from your regular cave diving expeditions?
Claus: The first thing to remember is that this cave is not a diving cave, it’s a dry cave that flooded. That means that normally you can walk around all the outcroppings but when we entered, that just wasn’t possible. We had to climb over rocks and slide down mudslides while working against a very strong flow and carrying equipment.
Ben: The first part was the hardest because we were diving in mud, fighting raging currents, and climbing over muddy rocks with all our gear – in a space with very bad air quality. But after camp 3 we were submerged, so we didn’t have to carry the equipment and could actually swim. It still took us 6 hours just to get past the T-section. Everyone did lose a few kilo’s, let’s put it like that.
What was the longest time you spent in the cave?
Ben: The longest dive was 12 hours I think.
Claus: Around 13 hours.
Did you dive in shifts? How did it work?
Ben: We were doing 10-12 hour days, hauling equipment and diving, so you’re really tired. In normal situations, you would call it a day. But these kids couldn’t rest – they’re still in there hoping someone would come and save them. So you would sleep a few hours, wake up at 2 am, go back in the cave, come out a few hours later, and do it all over again. Time was really ticking.
What were some of the biggest challenges inside the cave?
Ben: Not knowing where to go and not knowing where you are whilst preparing to see a dead body at any stage. Doubt, distance, and lack of gas make you turn around. The lack of oxygen and CO2 in the dry passages made it feel like you’re climbing a 4000m high mountain and you would be out of breath all the time.
Claus: I think for most of the diving team the most difficult part was to get into staging area 3. That’s where I felt the most insecure – because we were climbing, crawling, and walking on water pipes with unsure footing and heavy equipment.
What do you believe made this seemingly “impossible” rescue possible?
Ben: The team spirit of the Thai Navy SEALs. They just kept going with no sign of being tired. The Brits and I had given up after the first two days, thinking it was too dangerous and too far. But then a day later I saw the Navy SEALs going in again, so Maksym and I just followed and picked up from where they had left. No expense was spared. His Majesty the King was involved behind the screens and any equipment asked for would show up the next day. Sometimes with a military chopper. That availability of tools was crucial.
Claus: The whole world, and especially the teams on the scene, coming together and working towards this amazing outcome. The amount of Thais that showed up volunteering to cook, help with transport, cut hair, etc. made it something amazing to be a part of.
When did you initially start cave diving and what was the appeal?
Ben: I dove for over a decade without certification and I got lucky. I became certified in 2000, became a full cave instructor a few years later and I’m still addicted.
Claus: I did my first dives into caves in 2001, but only got certified in 2015. I still get a rush from the sights and experiences that each cave dive brings.
Ben and Claus are both based in Thailand where they work as technical diving specialists. Blue Label Diving is Ben’s own dive operation that specializes in technical diving, public safety and cave diving training. We offer everything from recreational open water courses to CCR as well as cave diving trips.